Monday, April 19, 2010

For Everything There is a Process

I've written a number of related blog posts on the theme of respecting your colleagues, neighbors, and family - the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number, Your Karma Balance, and a Plea for Civility.

A related topic is the way we should react when issues are escalated to us. No matter what the issue, always remember that there is process for every situation, no matter how emotional or urgent. Here's what I do:

1. Escalated issues are usually complex and difficult to resolve by email. This means that either you pick up the phone or schedule a quick meeting with stakeholders. It's generally best to schedule such meetings rapidly to prevent further misunderstandings and angst. At the meeting, the role of the leader is to listen and accept responsibility, even if the situation is not directly caused by you or your staff. When I've had challenging conversations with vendors, I'm always impressed by CEOs who take an active role in problem resolution even when responsibility for the root cause is not always clear.

2. Build a reasonable path forward. The challenging with being a leader is that demand for resources - staff time and budgets - always exceeds supply. I have to be careful not to overpromise and underdeliver. Thus, I'll work with the stakeholders to develop reasonable next steps which include short term wins, governance committee discussions, and phased delivery of solutions in the long term.

3. Instead of saying "No", say "Not now". Sometimes its tempting to just say "no" to a request that sounds unreasonable, untimely, or unstrategic. A better approach is gather the scope of the request, submit it to a governance committee, and then let the prioritization take place by a group representing many institutional interests. The answer back may be a "not now, but in the queue of other institutional priorities" which is more satisfying than "no".

4. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar - it is easier to persuade people if you use polite arguments and flattery than if you are confrontational. As a CIO I have complete accountability for all IT related issues but lack blanket authority. It would be great to be a benign dictator and just say "make it so", but that's not the case. Instead I have to use informal authority, build trust, create consensus and build a guiding coalition. I do that with humor, optimism and enthusiasm. Doing it by yelling, intimidating, or formal authority may work in the short term but it destroys trust and loyalty in the long term. I've been a CIO for nearly 15 years using the "honey" rather than "vinegar" approach.

5. Do not throw people under the bus, especially your own staff. I've experienced so leaders who are quick to place the blame on someone else as a way of deflecting responsibility. It's always awkward to be in a meeting when someone, often without warning, is identified as the root cause of a problem. To me, people are rarely the root cause - it's the project management and the governance that were flawed and enabled people to do the wrong thing. Thus, I never shoot the messenger or point fingers at a person. Instead I ask how we can all do better by changing the way we work.

Today, I'll have several challenging meetings. I know that there will be confrontations, tough questions, and even misunderstandings based on incomplete information. However, going into every meeting, I know there is a process to resolve every issue without requiring me to counter emotion with more emotion.


Anonymous said...

Dear John

Excellent post, words of wisdom from someone with immense experience. Particularly for today's younger and energetic Leaders it is valuable guidance.

It requires us to establish a culture that facilitates this, but most organizations tend to lose sight of the root cause and jump to curing the symptoms (as you expressed throwing people under the bus)

InformRN said...

What a wise post! Made my day!